America’s bitterly-contested presidential election revealed many of the weaknesses of that nation’s electoral system as well as the deep fissures within American society, issues that may take decades to address.
That’s the opinion of Western University professor and chair of the political science department Matthew Lebo. He spoke to Sarnia-Lambton Golden K Kiwanis members during a special Zoom presentation on Nov. 18.
Lebo, who grew up in Toronto and earned his undergraduate degree at Western, has taught American politics for 26 years. After going to graduate school in Texas, he taught in American universities for over 20 years before returning to his alma mater.
“I’m very glad to be back in Canada and at Western and watching this election from afar,” he said. “That has been much more enjoyable than being in the middle of it.”
His presentation began by taking a look at the election along with the process of U.S. presidential elections, with an emphasis on the seminal yet somewhat murky role the Electoral College plays in determining the outcome.
While Joe Biden received millions more votes than Donald Trump, the Electoral College made the election look like a much closer affair than it actually was, Lebo said.
“It’s awfully strange that we’re looking at an election that is 78.9 million votes to 73.2 million votes – a 5.6-million vote margin for Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, but there are many more votes to count in places like New York, California and Illinois … so it may well be a much bigger margin,” Lebo said.
“But if you could go and change the vote margins in a few places – Wisconsin, Georgia and Nevada – if you could change 66,000 votes in those states you would have an Electoral College vote of 269 to 269. And the tie in the Electoral College would mean the House of Representatives would decide the election. And the way that the House is set up … the majority of the state delegations are controlled by the Republicans, which would mean Donald Trump would still be in the White House.
“So what you’ve got is an election that – in terms of the vote share – is not even close,” he continued. “This is a pretty big win, an historical win, this is the biggest win that any person has had against an incumbent president since FDR beat Herbert Hoover in 1932. But you still have a really thin electoral victory because of the Electoral College, so paying attention to the Electoral College is the most important thing to look at.”
There are 538 total electors in the Electoral College, Lebo said, and each state is given a number of electors equal to the number of senators it has, which always remains at two, plus the number of its U.S. Representatives it has, which can vary from election to election depending on the state’s population (The District of Columbia has three votes as well).
The college is “fundamentally unfair”, Lebo said, as it gives smaller, less populated states an inordinate amount of power in determining who becomes president.
Texas, he said, has 38 votes in the Electoral College and a population of 29 million. That means one Electoral College vote in Texas represents roughly 730,000 people. But in Wyoming, which has three Electoral College votes and a population of just under 600,000, there is one electoral vote per 195,000 people.
“So the voting power in terms of electing a president is about three-and-a-half times larger in Wyoming than it is in Texas,” he said. “And there is an awful lot of variation among states. This is a huge problem and it is based on the fact that the United States Senate distributes power really unfairly. A state like Wyoming gets two senators yet (larger) states like California and Texas also only get two senators.”
In recent years, the Electoral College has provided a fundamental advantage for Republicans, Lebo said, because Democrats tend to pile up huge vote margins in the states that they traditionally win – California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey – while Republicans win big states – Florida and Texas in the 2020 election, for instance – by much closer margins.
“Republicans are much more efficient in terms of where they win, they aren’t wasting a lot of votes,” he said.
In response to a question about misinformation during the election, ‘fake news’ and the erosion of trust in American institutions, Lebo said it will take a long time for Americans to recover.
“This is a project that will take decades to overcome,” he said. “The trust in science and the trust in government are at all-time lows. They were already headed in that direction before Donald Trump came along, but he has systematically tried to undermine trust in truth and science but also in the media that report truth and science.
“Who is it that is now seen as objective by both sides to discern the difference between truth and non-truth? I really don’t know.”
When asked about how President-elect Biden will handle issues such as government spending, deficits, the debt and trade, Lebo said it largely depends on the makeup of the Senate, which still is undecided (there are two run-offs taking place in Georgia this January, which will decide the balance of the Senate).
“There is enormous debt in the U.S. but there is enormous tax potential if only the U.S.’s marginal tax rates were in line with what they were 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “I don’t think that they’ll get there, but the taxes that existed under Reagan or George H.W. Bush would have eliminated the deficit under pre-pandemic times.
“(In terms of trade) I think in some ways Biden will be better for Canada than Trump was. Trump’s America First policy, that kind of rhetoric is not so different from Biden’s Buy American. What will be better for Canada and for the world in terms of trade will just be the stability that Biden will bring to trading relationships, the ability to have long-term plans and to have a president who understands how a tariff works,” Lebo said.
“Pipelines are a whole other area of trade that liberal Canadians and Americans will be disappointed with. Why? Because Biden won Pennsylvania by only 70 to 80,000 votes. And for him to say ‘I’m going to kill every pipeline’ means that he might not (win the state) again.”
Asked whether Trump was an aberration in the Republican Party, Lebo said he was the culmination of 50 years of Republican policy.
“I think he’s part of a long-term trend in the Republican Party,” Lebo said. “I think the fundamental strains of Trumpism that are worrisome in the long term are racism, white nationalist politics and a lack of respect for democratic norms, a lack of respect of the truth and a lack of respect for democratic results. All of those things have been in the Republican Party … for the last 50 years and Donald Trump is just the latest version.
“You could start with Richard Nixon and his southern strategy trying to win over George Wallace voters in the South,” Lebo continued.
“Republicans refusing to accept the democratic process when it leads to the election of a Democrat – that is not Trump strictly speaking. That is not new. It’s been going on in Wisconsin, it’s been going on in recall elections, it’s been going on in North Carolina, where a Democrat was elected governor and Republicans using the lame duck period to change the job of the governorship, to try and de-legitimize the electoral process when they don’t win. That’s dangerous for democracy. So American democracy has been in decline for decades and Donald Trump has simply accelerated that.”
Lebo was asked if it is possible to repair the electoral process in the United States.
Lebo said it is, but ideally it would require some sort of national Voting Rights Act. Such legislation would take partisan politics out of the electoral process and reduce problems such as discrimination, manipulation of the voting process and gerrymandering.
But it might take a long time to see any sort of change in that direction, he cautioned.
“Even if Congress did put together a Voter Right Act I don’t know it would survive the scrutiny of the Supreme Court,” he said. “There is fundamental unfairness built into the U.S. Constitution. And I’d guess I’d start with the U.S. Senate. There are many, many ways that minority rule is possible in the United States and we’ll soon be at the point where 70 per cent of the Senate is elected by 30 per cent of the country, states like North Dakota and South Dakota and Wyoming. It’s interesting to note that on the Supreme Court, four justices were appointed by presidents who didn’t win the popular vote … so (reform) may take some time.”